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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Integrative Thinking Mark of Great Leadership

Integrative Thinking Mark Of Great Leadership

M. Bakri Musa

MT June 18, 2007

In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review,* Roger Martin, Dean of the University of Toronto School of Management, observed that successful leaders have the ability to hold two opposing ideas simultaneously, and then craft a solution based on the synthesis of both, instead of either/or. Malaysian leaders, political and religious, would do well to learn this.

Martin compared the human mind to the human thumb. An opposable thumb (able to apply force in opposing directions as well as opposable to the fingers) enables humans to do such intricate handiworks as drawing, writing, and sculpturing. It is also handy if not a necessity for a surgeon. Likewise, an opposable mind would enable leaders to think creatively instead of being trapped in a dichotomous or binary thinking of yes or no, and either/or. More importantly, this capacity for “integrative thinking” can be taught. It is the intellectual underpinning of Toronto’s fast-rising Management school.

Limitations of Binary Thinking

Many monumental problems can be traced to a leader’s inability to escape the trap of binary thinking. The earliest and most consequential split among Muslims was between those who believed that the leadership of the ummah (to succeed Prophet Muhammad s.a.w.) should be restricted to his bloodline, versus those who subscribed to the prophet’s command, “The best among you shall lead.” Thus we have the Shiites, the followers of Ali (the prophet’s nephew), and the Sunnis. Muslims and the world generally are still paying a terrible price as a consequence of that conventional thinking.

Had those earlier leaders been exercising their integrative thinking faculties, they could have come up with a solution along this line. Have the spiritual leadership of Islam be restricted to the Prophet’s descendents while the political leadership be to “the best among you.” We have the model of hereditary sultans and elected prime ministers. Perversely today, the only Shiites to adhere to the descendants-of-the-prophet-only-as-leader are the Ismailis. Mainstream Shiites have long ago abandoned that precept.

President Bush is today trapped in conventional thinking when he views the world as “either with us or against us.” As exemplified by Abu Gharaib and Guantanamo, atrocious behaviors are not limited only to “them.”

Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman exhibited best this integrative thinking. Instead of choosing between the two racial extremes of championing Tanah Melayu (Land of the Malays) versus the thinly-veiled but equally racist thinking of what would later be subsumed under the “Malaysia for Malaysians” banner, he chose a course synthesizing both elements. Thus he opted for Malaysia instead of Tanah Melayu or Melayu Raya (Greater Malay) and relaxed the citizenship rules for non-Malays while retaining enough Malay attributes (the sultans, Malay language) to satisfy Malay sensitivities. That stroke of political genius spared the country the tragic fate that befell the Balkans, Rwanda, and Northern Ireland.

The Tunku’s political genius did not percolate to today’s leaders; they are still trapped in their binary thinking. To them, learning English means neglecting Malay, while encouraging the study of English would ipso facto be detrimental to Malay language. Similarly, special privileges for Bumiputras must automatically mean suppression and discrimination of non-Bumiputras. This zero-sum mentality, the consequent of binary thinking, is not only non-productive but also destructive.

With integrative thinking, these problems would look very different, and their solutions more fruitful. Learning English literature in college stimulated and enhanced my appreciation of Malay literature. The celebrated Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer would not have been the great writer that he was had he limited himself only to Malay literature. Pram studied such great writers as Steinbeck and Hemingway, and translated their works. He became a better writer, and the Malay literary world is enriched with his translated as well as original works.

Munshi Abdullah would not have been the astute observer of Malay society and culture had he not been exposed to the British colonialists. He did not view the colonialists as all evil; likewise Pendita Zaaba would not have produced his defining works on Malay language had he not studied English grammar.

Yet today we have too many myopic Malay leaders and scholars unable to escape the confines of their traditional thinking. They are disdainful of Malays who wish to learn English.

Similarly, programs to assist Bumiputras should also indirectly help non-Bumiputras. Non-Bumiputra businesses would benefit more when Bumiputras are economically well off than when they are poor and marginalized. Executing programs under the NEP more efficiently and minimizing their leakages through corruption would go a long way towards minimizing non-Bumiputra resentments.

Encouraging Integrative Thinking

The good news is that we can learn integrative thinking. On visiting Singapore, Deng Xiaoping was astounded by the republic’s economic achievements. He was even more impressed when he considered that those Singapore Chinese were not descendents of the elite mandarin class (they chose to stay comfortably back home), rather of coolies and other dregs of China who could not make it back home and thus were forced to emigrate.

Deng rightly concluded that Singapore’s success had less to do with some mysterious and supposedly superior Asian (read: Chinese) values, as its leaders are wont to brag ad nauseam, rather to their embrace of free enterprise.

Instead of being hobbled in having to choose between capitalism and communism, which many thought were the only alternatives, Deng opted for a synthesis of the two. Hence his “communism with Chinese characteristics.” Russian leaders on the other hand, trapped in their conventional mindset, went headlong to latch onto capitalism without fully understanding it or having the necessary supportive institutions in place first. Consequently, Russia gives capitalism a bad name (at least initially) while China is a thriving capitalist society in all but name.

Deng learned integrative thinking informally; Martin teaches it to his MBA students formally in his lecture halls. He identifies four necessary steps to integrative thinking. First is identifying the key issues in a problem, what he calls salience, and then analyzing their links, specifically their causality, fully aware that these relationships may not necessarily be one-to-one or even linear. Third would be to outline the architecture of the various elements and their relationships. Last would be the resolution phase when we refrain from the either/or mentality and instead seek a synthesis by incorporating the best elements from each.

We all implicitly recognize that there are good and bad elements with any position. The challenge is to incorporate the good and eliminate the bad.

I have unconsciously applied integrative thinking to the many dilemmas in my life. Today I have difficulty identifying myself belonging to any particular mahdab (school of jurisprudence) of Islam. Through the freedom afforded me in the West, I am able to explore the vast and varied richness of our Islamic traditions, from the Ahmadiyyahs to the Ismailis and Wahhabis. In each I have found elements that appeal to and are useful for me.

The Ahmaddiyyahs’ emphasis on social services in particular education is relevant and appealing. From the Wahhabis I learn to value the anchoring stability of traditions and rituals. The Ismailis teach me a richer and deeper meaning of emulating our Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. Of all Muslims, they best exemplify the prophet’s commitment to seeking knowledge and serving your fellow humans.

The current obsession with Malay-Muslims on whether they are Muslims first or Malaysians is both puerile and divisive. Malays are Muslims and Malaysians simultaneously; the two are not mutually exclusive. It is not an either/or proposition, rather a synthesis of the two. If you were a good Muslim, you would be a good Malaysian, and vice versa. We all assume multiple identities simultaneously: a teacher as well as being a student; a father and a son; a leader and a follower. In my masjid, I am the follower and the Imam the leader. When he is in the hospital, I am the leader and he, the follower.

Martin’s integrative thinking has long been the staple of experienced physicians. It is instructive that while he is teaching future business leaders this useful skill, medical educators are perversely moving away from it. Today, doctors grapple with mandated algorithms, diagnostic trees, and treatment protocols, all under the guise of “evidence-based medicine.” These do nothing but force physicians into binary thinking, and of assuming an either/or mindset, to the detriment of their patients.

Many of the problems in Malaysia and the world would be better managed if we could escape our conventional thinking and opt for the integrative one. Conventional thinking handicaps us by making us view the world as “us” versus “them,” while integrative thinking helps make us see it more as “we.” In this increasingly globalized world, that is an imperative.

That notwithstanding conventional thinking is still appropriate and adequate when the problems are discrete and well defined. Even complex problems are made more readily solvable by breaking them up into discrete components and thinking conventionally. In short, as per Martin’s thesis, the choice between conventional and integrative thinking it is not an either/or proposition rather a synthesis of the two.

  • Roger Martin: How Successful Leaders Think. Harvard Business Review, June 2007.


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